THE STORY OF A PRAYER BOOK
Thirty years ago today, December 27, my beloved Dad died, the first real tsunami emotional experience of my life! The man I adored, who had been there for me for 52 years, who was always larger than life (and funnier), who always had answers to my questions, who as both a mechanical and electrical engineer could make or repair anything, who was a terrific listener and even better dispenser of advice, would no longer fill such moments in my life. Half of the seamless tunic that was my parent’s marriage, was now gone.
I was there when he died in the peace and beauty of his home, surrounded by Mom, my brother Bill, my sister Gail and brother-in-law and their children and by a neighbor, Fr. Eugene Flatley, a retired priest. My brother Dick had been trapped in snow in Oregon and did not make it for the 27th. Bill had arrived only 12 hours earlier from Illinois in what had to be a Holy Spirit-inspired moment. He told us that when he phoned Dad on Christmas Day and asked how he was (Dad had been in failing health after multiple surgeries), for the first time, Dad did not answer that question with “I’m hanging in there.” And Bill knew to come to California.
I flew home from Rome on December 24th. When I spoke to Dad on Thanksgiving, he sounded upbeat and I only learned when I got home on the 24th that he was not supposed to live beyond the first week of December. Fr. Flatley told me, “He was waiting till you got here.”
My Dad had saved me from drowning when I was five. I only learned this in my 20s and this explained why I always felt that Dad had a special love for me. He probably saved me on a lot of other occasions in life with his advice. And, he does not know it but the many prayer books he owned have made indelible marks on my soul.
Sixty years ago this very Christmas – December 25, 1962 – Dad gave this prayer book to Mom. As you will see in the following story I wrote for the 2017 book “When Women Pray,” I inherited Dad’s prayer books after he died.
So Christmas and my Dad and prayer books have always had a special place in my heart and my life.
By the way, Dad died on Sunday, December 27th, 1992. It was the feast of the Holy Family and a perfect day for an outstanding family man to be called to Heaven.
And now, if you want to learn about one woman’s prayer life – and how easy it is to pray, read on…..
Depending on the time of day, you might want to fill a cup with hot coffee or hot chocolate, or perhaps sit down to a chilled glass of prosecco! Just relax and enjoy!
A HEART TO HEART WITH GOD
Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep;
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen
This is the first prayer I remember ever saying. I’m not sure how old I was but I remember learning this from my parents as they put me to bed at night.
Looking back, I now think, “well, that’s kind of a scary thing to say to children, ‘If I die before I wake…..’.” But, at a young age I’d not yet had the experience of losing a loved one, of someone dying.
To be honest, I can’t think of a time when prayer was not a part of my life. I was the oldest of four siblings and my prayer memories, if you wish, include saying grace before meals, reciting the family rosary in May and very often also in October, the month of the rosary (thus the Hail Mary, Our Father and Glory Be were a great part of our lives). Sunday Mass was of course a family affair and I remember having colorful prayer books when I was small and beautiful missals as I grew older.
Families with children always brought the kids to Mass and I’m sure that part of the time spent in prayer was praying that the kids would behave! I remember the Brennan family with 13 children – everyone always at Mass. As children, we were taught that church was God’s home and therefore a very special place, and Sunday Mass, the Eucharist, was God’s big gift to us each week and therefore we must show our respect by being quiet or – in a word I learned later – “recollect.”
Some families had babies and they, of course, did what babies do – they cried, they were fed and most then slept blissfully. Older children had prayer books with pictures, coloring books, etc. Everything was geared to church and Mass. After a while, children associate Sunday Mass and church with reverence and silence – and sometimes with deprivation! After all, Sunday was the day you could not sleep in or be outside playing with friends.
Sounds idyllic, right? In many ways it was, Families were always together in church. Businesses were closed on Sundays and that surely contributed to church attendance and to families staying – and praying – together – for a day. Because of work schedules today, families will often go to church in shifts, Dad and some kids at the 9 o’clock Mass and Mom and the others at the 10:30. Crying rooms now seem to be common in many churches (in the U.S. at least) and that is to be applauded because it encourages the whole family to come to Mass, including a noisy or fitful baby
One tradition that we had for years was our family May altar. Mom and Dad helped a bit but it was the four of us who would build this altar to Mary, often using orange crates (my grandparents sent us crates of fruit every year from their winter home in Florida) and any remnants of blue or white fabric that we could find. One of my Mom’s treasures, a beautiful porcelain bust of a praying Blessed Mother, was always the centerpiece, around which we could place small vases of flowers from our garden and, on occasion, we “borrowed” lilacs from our neighbor, Mr. Emerson. And, of course, we prayed the rosary here.
Speaking of rosaries: When I was very young, I remember winning a rosary because I had memorized the most number of chapters in the Baltimore catechism (I personally think we should reprise this simple and lovely explanation of the faith for children).
I well remember watching Bishop Fulton Sheen on television, when television was fairly new and not every home had one (believe it or not!). We were not always thrilled to be taken from playing games or whatever we were doing after dinner but about five minutes into every show we were riveted by what we heard and learned from this powerful speaker and holy man. In addition to what he taught us, Bishop Sheen made me feel proud and happy to be a Catholic.
My prayer memories also include daily Mass during Lent with my Dad. I loved going to morning Mass at St. Edmund’s in Oak Park, Illinois and the special moments continued when we had breakfast at a diner just down the street.
My prayer life today is linked to my Dad in many ways, not just those memories I’ve written about but the many prayer books I own.
Mom told me a wonderful story about six months after Dad had died and I was helping her go through some of his things, including items in his desk.
Dad was the idea man, the project man, the builder and the repairman in the family. In fact, I have no recollection of a repairman ever entering our home as I was growing up because Dad could always fix what was broken. He often worked late into the night after dinner, fixing, adjusting or inventing something in his special workshop.
One night, when he seemed to be working later than usual, and things were quieter than usual, Mom, instead of calling down to him, went downstairs and found him, not in his workshop but in our den, reading one of the many prayer books he had in his desk, books from his youth or ones he had acquired over the years.
Mom told me that the talk they always had every night in their bedroom to discuss family issues, raising children, finances and even the world’s problems, was held that night in Dad’s office. They talked about faith and about all the books he had and about how important it was to have quiet time to pray.
Mom gave me those books after telling that story, and they have given me many hours of joy over the years, the joy of inspirational reading and the joy of wonderful memories of a family for whom living the faith was as natural as breathing.
At this point I’d love to share some beautiful words on mothers and motherhood that Pope Francis spoke at the January 7, 2015 weekly general audience in a year when he was dedicating the weekly catecheses to the family:
“A society without mothers would be a dehumanized society, for mothers are always, even in the worst moments, witnesses of tenderness, dedication and moral strength. They pass on the deepest sense of religious practice – the first prayers, the first acts of devotion that a child learns. … Without mothers, not only would there be no new faithful, but the faith would lose a good part of its simple and profound warmth.”
Another prayer memory: In high school I always signed up to spend 15 minutes of a study hour period in the chapel, praying the rosary with a fellow student. At Trinity High school, the rosary was said daily, throughout the day, from first bell to the dismissal bell. Sometimes we did double duty if someone’s prayer partner was absent.
In my sophomore year at St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana, I lived in Regina Hall, a very small residence hall. We had our own chapel and for that entire year I was the official sacristan, setting up the vestments and preparing the Missal the night before Mass and readying the chalice, wine and hosts the morning of Mass. I naturally had to know the liturgical seasons and feast days to get the right colors for vestments and I also had to know my Latin to prepare the Missal for the readings (the Epistle and Gospel) as this was immediately prior to Vatican Council II and the eventual “novelty” of Masses being said in the vernacular.
All of our residence halls had chapels and daily Mass (several in fact) but Regina Hall was the only place where I was the sacristan. To this day, I remember how, with a sense of awe, I placed the unconsecrated hosts in the ciborium, knowing that the next morning the priest, with the power vested in him through ordination, would change them into the Body of Christ – as he would change wine into the Precious Blood. As a child I had learned what Transubstantiation meant – and each evening in the chapel I felt so near to that miraculous act.
Up to this point I have focused on my personal prayer memories, my family, my youth – and that is for a reason. When you build a house, you want to start with the strongest possible foundation so that the house will last forever, or nearly. Wouldn’t that be true for prayer life? If a strong foundation for prayer life is set within the family and in the early years of life, aren’t the chances better that that prayer life will remain – even if storms come along and shake it up a bit?!
When I entered the more secular world of work after college, new schedules and demands in time led to somewhat diminished prayer habits except, of course, for Mass on Sundays (it has never occurred to me, in my decades on this planet, not to go to Mass on Sundays), holidays and the great feasts of Holy Week, etc. Rosaries were less frequent as I tried to manage days where most waking hours were dedicated to work and getting to and from work.
I never married or had a family so I cannot even speak to how a busy, multi-faceted, time-consuming family life might impact prayer life. I have, of course, spent quality time with married nieces and nephews and have seen that those for whom a strong foundation was laid in childhood are building strong foundations for their own children – Mass, grace before meals, family faith celebrations like First Communions, etc.
And that is probably where most of us struggle now with our time vis-à-vis prayer life – or should I say ‘juggle our time’? Trying to find time for daily Mass where the parish schedule fits ours, especially where there may be only one morning Mass. Trying to find break time during the work day, or at the end of a long day, for even a decade of the rosary.
I do not have a car in Rome so I walk a great deal or use public transportation. Often the wait for a bus is longer than need be and I have developed the habit of saying one or more Hail Marys as I wait – you know, don’t curse the darkness, turn the lights on!
Several years ago I had a Life’s Little Instruction Calendar on my desk and each day a single, tear-off page had a saying that usually made you sit up and think or, at times, laugh right out loud. One day, I read this: “When you wish there were more hours in a day, just remember you have the same number of hours as Thomas Jefferson, Michelangelo, Mother Teresa, and Thomas Edison.”
Well, of course, that made me think: I really can plan, I really can find time for a more structured prayer life.
(My favorite “laugh out loud” phrase, by the way: “When you don’t know what you’re talking about, keep it to yourself!” (I’m guessing that applies to writers as well!)
For most of us, then, it is a question of time management: daily Mass (or at least as often as possible), daily rosary (even a decade or two at a time), spiritual reading (even small amounts, as that quite likely will lead to longer amounts) and so on.
Where there’s a will, there’s usually a way, even in the midst of a crushing work or family schedule. For example, we don’t have to read our emails on the way to work, we can use our cell phone or tablet to read a breviary, a few pages from the Bible app, a few lines from the life of a saint or some inspiring e-book we’ve downloaded.
Did I ever experience a particular breakthrough in prayer, a Eureka moment?
Yes, indeed! At age 45, following a particularly traumatic experience that I got through because of faith, family and friends, I remember wondering what was next in my life. Suddenly one day – I don’t remember time or place – without actually planning it, I turned heavenward (because that’s where we always think God is, even when He is next to us), and said, “Lord, my life from now on is in Your hands!”
I felt a calm I had not felt in a long time and in my mind’s eye I saw Jesus make a thumbs up gesture and say, “Yes! Finally!” In ensuing days I felt my heart was more open to receiving, my mind was more open to listening to the Lord’s voice, not mine. Before, I’d been talking to and asking the Lord for favors, but now I was having “conversations” with Him. No, nothing mystical, nothing beyond comprehension, no booming voice coming out of the sky to speak to me, just talking to Jesus as a friend, the friend the nuns and priests and my parents had always told me about as a child.
If the Baltimore Catechism taught us that, “Prayer is the lifting up of our minds and hearts to God, to adore Him, to thank Him for His benefits, to ask His forgiveness,” that is what I was now trying to do in earnest. My conversation with God, with Jesus, became a “new and improved” conversation after the age of 45.
As a child, I remember being filled with wonder – and a few questions – when the nuns tried to explain the Trinity to us. I mean, how could there be Three Persons in One?
I somewhat understood God the Father (because after all I did have a father) and I really did not understand the Holy Spirit (and the nuns said a lot of people had problems with the Holy Spirit (or, as we called him then, the Holy Ghost) but I did understand the Son, Jesus.
After all, Jesus was one of us. He lived eons ago but he was a living, breathing person who had a Mom and Dad and grandparents and friends. He experienced hot and cold and hunger and rain and sunshine and great joys and probably laughed a lot, like we did in my family. Jesus also lived difficult moments, experienced pain and loss and the betrayal of friends and insults and humiliation. But he could also work miracles and that had to be hugely satisfying. That is what I thought of my friend Jesus as a child. I knew he was my friend because that’s what Mom and Dad told me, and what the nuns had taught me (probably the same nuns that taught Mom and Dad!).
Thus, talking to Jesus became my way of praying, my “informal” way of praying when formal prayer, Mass, the rosary, etc. was not possible.
What has worried me most about my prayer life has been what I see as my inability to pray like the saints, like the Popes, like the mystics. I’ve often felt unworthy and unable to express my love for God after reading the soaring prose of the Psalms, the love letters of saints like Teresa of Avila, Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, St. John Paul II and so many others.
On several occasions I was blessed to be at Mass in John Paul’s private chapel and I can only say I will not live long enough to ever again encounter a person who prayed like John Paul did. He was always at prayer when we entered the chapel and you felt instantly that he was unaware of our presence because he was totally aware of another Presence. I sensed something mystical as I watched him pray. I could almost hear the conversation he was having with God or, quite likely, his Blessed Mother whom he loved so much! Those images were seared into my soul!
Then I realized that I am not Teresa or Thérèse or John Paul or a Psalmist, those to whom God had given greater graces. I am Joan, created in His image and likeness and with my own gifts. Those gifts did not include soaring, powerful love phrases. Perhaps my “gift” is being able to talk – and sometimes cry and laugh – with childlike simplicity with my friend Jesus.
And I can do this without setting aside extra time. In the morning offering, I give Him my “prayers, works, joys and suffering.”
One thing I always do is thank God after I pray. Not just the phrase “Thank God” that so easily trips off the lips. But a true, heartfelt, “Thank You, Lord.” I say ‘thank you’ even before I know He will answer my petition or how He will answer it, if He does.
I actually find myself saying, “Thank You, Lord” dozens of times during the day. I thank God in the morning for giving me another day, for the sun that comes out after a tremendous storm, for the leaves that turn magical colors in the autumn, for being able to share a meal or a coffee with friends and colleagues, for finding a seat on a crowded bus, for learning some new and interesting fact, for being asked to help someone in need, for being able to offer up physical pain or discomfort, for completing a writing or project deadline, for the unexpected phone call or email from an old friend, for making an especially delicious dinner with a new recipe. And on and on goes the list.
And the more you do it, the easier it becomes, the more natural it becomes. Just like a Hail Mary at a bus stop.
Chapter 7, “A Heart To Heart With God,” by Joan Lewis, in “When Women Pray, Eleven Catholic Women on the Power of Prayer,” edited by Kathleen Beckman for Sophia Institute Press (2017)